Everything you need to know about the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft

American Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

News of two recent plane crashes has raised fears about whether planes made by U.S. aircraft manufacturers Boeing are safe to fly. The first incident occurred on October 29, 2018, when Lion Air Flight 610 departed from Jakarta, Indonesia at 6:20 a.m. local time. Twelve minutes later, the plane went down into the nearby Java Sea, killing all 189 of the passengers and crew on board.

The second incident occurred in Ethiopia. On March 10, 2019, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 took off from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at 8:38 a.m. local time heading for Nairobi, Kenya. Six minutes after takeoff, the plane crashed near to the town of Bishoftu, Ethiopia and all 157 of the passengers and crew were killed.

These two tragedies have sent shocks through the aviation industry as they both involved the same model of plane, the Boeing 737 MAX 8. Preliminary data from investigations of the crashes indicate that both may have been caused by the same issue with the planes.

In the days immediately following the second crash, aviation regulators in Europe and China opted to ground all MAX 8 flights until the safety of the planes could be assessed. At first, U.S. regulators and airlines affirmed the safety of the MAX 8 and allowed the planes to continue to fly. But after considerable public pressure, the U.S. also opted to ground the planes beginning on March 13.

What went wrong with the Boeing 737 Max 8 planes, and are other Boeing planes safe to fly in? Here’s everything you need to know.

About the Boeing 737 Max 8

The plane model involved in both crashes was the Boeing 737 MAX 8. This is the fourth generation of 737 planes and is an update to the previous 737 Next Generation (NG) series.

The 737 series is one of Boeing’s great successes, and there are thousands of these planes in the skies. The 737 Next Generation series, debuted in 1997, remains one of the safest models of planes flying today with an excellent safety record of just 0.08 fatal crashes per million departures. For reference, the average safety record across all types of Boeing planes is 0.66 fatal crashes per million departures.

You may well have flown in a 737-800, part of the NG series. For example, Ryanair has a whole fleet of 737-800s and the airline has never had a single fatality.

So what happened in the crashes? The issues that have been making the news are with the 737 MAX series specifically. Problems seem to have arisen because the MAX series was rushed into production so Boeing could stay competitive with its European rival, Airbus.

Why the MAX series was rushed

In the early 2000s, Boeing had comfortable market dominance in the supply of commercial airplanes. But in 2011, Airbus made inroads into the market when it made a deal to supply American Airlines with its A320 planes that had newer, more fuel-efficient engines. Fuel efficiency was a particular issue for airlines at the time due to a spike in the price of oil in 2008, which made fuel costs a pressing concern.

Boeing was forced to scramble to keep up with Airbus. It too required newer, more fuel-efficient engines on its planes, and it needed them quickly.

How the MAX differed from previous models

In order to make the 737 MAX more fuel efficient, Boeing added larger engines. The planes already sat low to the ground, so the larger engines were difficult to fit into the space available, and were thus moved toward the front of the plane and higher up. This required the nose landing gear to be extended by eight inches. By the end of the tweaking process, the planes were 14 percent more fuel efficient than previous models.

Boeing 737 Max 8
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

But planes are delicately balanced machines, and these seemingly small changes affected the way that the MAXs handled. The new location of the engine caused the planes to pitch upwards, with their noses pointing too high. This was a problem because if a plane pitches upward too much, the air around the wings creates eddies, leading to a stall.

To compensate for these changes in handling, Boeing added a system called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) which was supposed to prevent stalling by automatically bringing the nose down if the plane was pitching up.

The same plane?

Part of the controversy around the MAX series was the way that it was classified by Boeing. Boeing introduced the MAX planes as an update to the 737 Next Generation series, essentially saying that they were the same plane. Therefore, Boeing claimed pilots who had flown a 737-NG didn’t need additional training on the 737-MAX.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the U.S. government body that oversees aviation safety, agreed with Boeing’s assessment. They decided that no additional information or training for pilots was required, as established emergency procedures would cover any problems that could arise with the new models.

Getting the FAA to agree to no additional training was an essential internal requirement at Boeing, according to insiders who spoke to the New York Times. The company felt under time pressure to deliver the new model and didn’t want delays in rolling the planes out.

Emerging Tech

Inside the Ocean Cleanup’s ambitious plan to rid the ocean of plastic waste

In 2013, Boyan Slat crowdfunded $2.2 million to fund the Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit organization that builds big, floating trash collectors and sets them out to sea, where they’re designed to autonomously gobble up garbage.
Cars

Keep your driving record squeaky clean with these top-flight radar detectors

Nobody likes getting a speeding ticket, but these gadgets can help. Check out our picks for the best radar detectors on the market, from the likes of Valentine One, Escort, and Beltronics.
Emerging Tech

Alphabet’s Wing drones now have FAA approval to deliver packages in the U.S.

Alphabet Wing has become the first company to receive Air Carrier Certification from the FAA. This means that it can begin commercial deliveries from local businesses to homes in the U.S.
Photography

Photography News: Instagram’s disappearing likes, the best photos of the year

In this week's Photography News, see why Instagram is testing a version that excludes the number of likes a post gets. Also, see the impressive winners from two photography contests and the latest features coming to the Fujifilm X-T3.
Mobile

Samsung Galaxy S10 update gives manual control of Bright Night mode

Samsung 2019 flagship smartphone lineup is here, and there aren't just two phones as usual — there are four. There's the Galaxy S10, S10 Plus, as well as a new entry called the S10e, as well as the Galaxy S10 5G.
Emerging Tech

Troubleshooting Earth

It’s no secret that humans are killing the planet. Some say it’s actually so bad that we’re hurtling toward a sixth major extinction event -- one which we ourselves are causing. But can technology help us undo the damage we’ve…
Emerging Tech

Climeworks wants to clean the atmosphere with a fleet of truck-sized vacuums

Using machines that resemble jet engines, Climeworks wants to fight climate change by extracting CO2 from thin air. The gas can then be sold to carbonated drink and agriculture companies, or sequestered underground.
Emerging Tech

How 3D printing has changed the world of prosthetic limbs forever

When he was 13 years old, Christophe Debard had his leg amputated. Here in 2019, Debard's Print My Leg startup helps others to create 3D-printed prostheses. Welcome to a growing revolution!
Emerging Tech

Geoengineering is risky and unproven, but soon it might be necessary

Geoengineering is a field dedicated to purposely changing the world's climate using technology. Call it 'playing god' if you must; here's why its proponents believe it absolutely must happen.
Digital Trends Live

Digital Trends Live: Earth Day, indoor container farming, robot submarines

Today on Digital Trends Live, we discuss how technology intersects with Earth Day, a new Tim Cook biography, indoor container farming, robot spy submarines, A.I. death metal, and more.
Gaming

Google’s Stadia is the future of gaming, and that’s bad news for our planet

Google’s upcoming Stadia cloud gaming service, and its competitors, are ready to change the way gamers play, but in doing so they may kick off a new wave of data center growth – with unfortunate consequences for the environment.
Emerging Tech

Hawaiian botanists’ drone discovers a plant thought to be lost forever

In what may well be a world first, botanists in Hawaii recently used a drone to find a species of plant that scientists believed was extinct. The plant was located on a sheer cliff face nearly 20 years after its last sighting.
Emerging Tech

A battery-free pacemaker harvests and stores energy from heartbeats

Researchers in China and the United States have developed a new battery-free pacemaker which gathers its required electricity from the energy of heartbeats. Here's why that's so exciting.
Smart Home

The startup behind the world’s first laundry robot has folded

When the Laundroid was first announced almost three years ago, then shown off at last year's CES, it was met with a fair bit of both intrigue and derision. But now Seven Dreamers, the company behind it, says the company is out of money.
1 of 2